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Ethnic Bias Seen in South Korea Teacher Hiring

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Ethnic Bias Seen in South Korea Teacher Hiring

Ethnic Bias Seen in South Korea Teacher Hiring

Ethnic Bias Seen in South Korea Teacher Hiring

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

As South Korea's economy grows, many students there are learning English. But Americans of every race who apply to teach in that country are discovering a troubling reality. Schools in South Korea often only hire white Americans.


American college graduates are flocking to Korea to teach English. You don't need to have any teaching experience or even know how to speak Korean. You just need to be a native English speaker.

But, as Jason Strother reports from Seoul, some American teachers are discovering a racial barrier.

Mr. OMAR RAY (Teacher): Good morning.

JASON STROTHER: Omar Ray(ph) greets his third-grade class at the Ansan Elementary School. Like thousands of other Americans, the 28-year-old from Philadelphia came to South Korea to teach English, earning money to pay back student loans and experiencing Asian culture firsthand. But three years ago, when Ray received the first response to his resume, he learned that landing a teaching job would not be easy.

Mr. RAY: They sent me an email saying they apologized but their boss would not be able to hire an African-American, the instructor saying that parents probably wouldn't like it. Their parents wouldn't approve.

STROTHER: But that didn't stop Ray from applying to another school. And again, he was turned down because of his skin color. He wasn't upset, he says, because he had experienced racism in the States. The only difference was that people in Korea were more upfront about it. Ray soon found a job at a private academy. Many South Korean recruitment ads state only two requirements for English teachers: having a college degree and being a native English speaker. But because photographs must be attached to applications, schools are able to quietly screen out people of color. Other ads are surprisingly blunt. One posted recently on a popular message board stated that only those of Caucasian descent need apply.

Jason Cresswell recruits recent college grads to teach in South Korea. He says that it's the students' parents who pressure the schools to hire whites only.

Mr. JASON CRESWELL (Recruiter): The mothers are the ones who kind of dictate what they want, because it's them who are making the decision as to what school they're going to send their kid to. And unfortunately in Korea there's still that idea that the classic American would be blond hair and blue-eyed, and that's what they're hoping for, regardless of whether or not that has any implication to, you know, the quality of the education.

STROTHER: At a playground in Seoul, two mothers keep an eye on their elementary school-aged children. While not wanting to reveal their names, they both agree that the race of an English teacher is important.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Mother): (Through translator) White people are better. We don't have stereotypes, but we just prefer white people, especially Canadians.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Mother): (Through translator) Right, I agree. It's more comfortable. It's important not only for children's feelings, but for parents too.

STROTHER: Koreans' historical experiences with foreigners may contribute to their prejudice, according to Michael Hurt, an ethnic studies Ph.D candidate at Berkeley who is conducting research for his dissertation in Seoul. He comes from a Korean and African-American descent, and writes about his observations on his blog, "Scribblings of the Metropolitician."

Mr. MICHAEL HURT (Researcher): Because of Korea's history, there's a lot of xenophobia. There is a clearly defined way of looking at the outside world that is ethnocentric. On top of the fact that you have this sort of agrarian society's emphasis on lighter skin as a sign of privilege and darker skin as a sign of, you know, being out in the fields, being a farmer.

STROTHER: Hurt also believes that America pop culture, movie stars and musicians, have contributed to racial stereotyping in South Korea.

Mr. HURT: Well, there is their English, you know, that, you know, blacks kind of speak with an accent. There's this fear of there being like this tinge of Ebonics, you know, not proper English.

STROTHER: Michael Hurt says racial and linguistic bias also applies to Korean-Americans looking for teaching jobs in South Korea.

MR. HURT: If you're a Korean, you have a Korean face, I can't really imagine you as a foreigner, it doesn't matter whether you're, you know, you're born and raised in the United States and you - you're still not American-American.

Mr. RAY: How's the weather today?

(Soundbite of students)

STROTHER: But back in the classroom, Omar Ray is finishing up the day's lessons. Despite his initial setbacks, he says he likes Korea and has made some good Korean friends. He plans to stay at least two more years.

Mr. RAY: It's not perfect. If you're looking to get away from racism, you won't. But if you are confident yourself and you know that things like this don't bother you, it's no problem at all. No big deal.

STROTHER: Ray says that you have to take the good with the bad, and recommends Korea to anyone who wants to come here and teach.

For NPR News, I'm Jason Strother in Seoul, South Korea.

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